James Carter & John Medeski bring “Heaven on Earth” to Seattle

Earshot Jazz Fest

Heaven on Earth band
The Triple Door
Seattle, Wa
October 22, 2010

On the evening of October 22nd I headed downtown to catch a performance by John Medeski and James Carter at the swanky Triple Door club in Seattle.  This was the earlier of two performances that night, cross-presented by the Heineken City Arts Fest and Earshot Jazz.  I have been a Medeski, Martin, & Wood fan since experiencing them live at the Moore theatre with DJ Shadow in 1999.  Since then, I have probably seen them a good eight times, so I was interested in seeing Medeski play with a completely new and different band.  I had never heard of James Carter before, but I looked him up and discovered that he is an impressive Saxophonist who tends to work with strong Organ players (hmmm… there seems to be a pattern here).

When I arrived there was already a line out the door.  I’m guessing that everybody else also had trouble finding parking and arrived later than desired.  The venue was packed and all of the seats were full, so I had to stand towards the back in front of the sound board.  The show had already started and, upon entering, I was greeted with the Coltrane-esque overblown saxophone sounds of James Carter, coupled with John Medeski’s smooth grooving organ.  They were backed by a solid band of seasoned veterans which consisted of Ralphe Armstrong on standup bass (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Santana, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, Aretha Franklin, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, D-12), New York guitarist Adam Rogers (John Zorn, Paul Simon, The Mingus Orchestra feat. Elvis Costello, Ravi Coltrane, Bill Evans, Larry Coryell, Norah Jones) and drummer Lee Pearson (The Duke Ellington Orchestra, The Cab Calloway Orchestra, Eryka Badu, Lauryn Hill, tonight show band with Jay Leno).  The group was very tight and played a mix of funky/bluesy jazz.  Medeski delivered his stylish groove, but he was much less “experimental” than I have seen him play in the past and he limited himself to only manning the organ.  With MMW, on the other hand, he is known to incorporate piano, mellotron, clavinet, ARP String Ensemble, Wurlitzer electric piano, and Moog Voyager Synthesizer, among others.

The second number that they played was much more mellow.  Each member was showcasing their talents with impressive solos, but they all kept it fairly smooth with limited improvisation, aside from James Carter who was going off on most songs.  For their third track, Armstrong set aside his stand up bass and picked up a fretless, wowing the crowd with some inspired finger-work.  I rarely see bass players play fretless live and it was pretty awesome.  Rogers pulled off some nice licks on the guitar, reminiscent of John Scofield’s work from A Go Go (1998), sans the reverse samples.  The similarities are not surprising when you consider that MMW operated as Scofield’s backing band on A Go Go and that Rogers actually studied with the Jazz guitar legend in New York.  During his drum solo, Lee Pearson threw in some comedic antics and drew a few hoots from the audience.  He balanced a drumstick on his head and played with one arm behind his back, all the while keeping in perfect time.  The next song involved James Carter taking hold of a baritone sax and displaying some impressive techniques of his own.  He started in quietly, leading the band in with a smooth buildup, before heading into some experimental percussive techniques.  Eventually, he was getting what resembled a didgeridoo sound out of the instrument and I swear he even teased the Jaws theme song for a second.  Somehow, he actually managed to build up enough pressure in the sax to allow him to move the mouthpiece away from his face and hit a key which created a low drone.  Meanwhile, Rogers was employing some sleek smooth guitar work, reminding me of BB King.

James Carter is somewhat of a saxophone powerhouse.  To clarify the earlier reference to his accompanying musicians as providing only “limited improvisation”, that’s not entirely true.  They all definitely improvised, however, they did seem a bit more restrained than usual.  This was especially true with Medeski and Rogers.  As Carter provided the majority of the experimental/improvised moments, the other members worked more as his backing band.  The band never really talked or introduced the songs, so I can’t be sure of the names, but my guess is that they were pulling material from the recent live album, Heaven on Earth, that Medeski and Carter recorded at the Blue Note in New York.  That effort features their jazz-jam take on tracks like “Diminishing” (Django Reinhardt), “Heaven On Earth” (Larry Young), “Blue Leo” (Leo Parker), and the standard, “Street Of Dreams,” with the major differences being the rhythm section; originally composed of Christian Mcbride (bass) and Joey Baron (Drums).

After the fourth song, Carter introduced the band and it was over.  The crowd stood up and cheered; hoping for an encore that, to our disappointment, never arrived.  I’ve considered the possibility that they may have played one more song that I missed while I was waiting in the line, which was fucked and super slow.  After speaking with a friend who attended the later show, it sounds as if the group really went off for that set and may have even played much later.  I would hate to believe that they may have skimped on the earlier show.  If that is the case, it would be especially disappointing because, after pushing the 2nd show time back to 10pm, they were provided with more than enough time to stretch that first one out longer, if they had chosen to.  Speculations aside, the Carter/Medeski show was like a lot of shows that I’ve witnessed at the Triple Door before; a short but impressive performance.